682 Jours : Roselyne Bachelot’s unconvincing book

All the versions of this article: English , français
See the image in its page

Frédéric Mitterrand, Françoise Nyssen, Roselyne Bachelot... Three French ministers of culture have each produced a book about their short stay in the rue de Valois, and all three talk about me [1]. That’s quite an honour. None of them like me. It is even more so.
To be honest, the three cannot be put on the same level. The least interesting is certainly Françoise Nyssen, about whom I don’t have much to add. Frédéric Mitterrand, if I criticised him as Minister of Culture, and if he did not spare me in his book, at least has a good record when he was director of the Villa Médicis, and a fine pen. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Roselyne Bachelot on this last point. On the other hand, she has a sense of formula, and the way she executes certain people is often quite funny. She calls me a "méchant", as Frédéric Mitterrand did, although the term is a bit outdated. It’s true that she knows what nastiness is, and hers is sometimes tasty: her description of the Césars evening and in particular of Corinne Masiero’s naked performance is, it must be said, hilarious.

She wrote a very kind dedication to me on the copy sent to the press office. It is therefore courteous to say a word here about this book, in which she settles her accounts with everyone, or almost everyone, though she is careful not to really scratch the President of the Republic, this "man of culture" (sic) and his wife. In this regard, the controversy that is spreading on social networks, in particular, about Brigitte Macron’s supposed desire to install a phallic arrow on Notre-Dame de Paris is totally unfounded. Roselyne Bachelot simply says that the president’s wife had shown her such a project, to laugh about it of course, certainly not to defend it. The only problem is that she completely reinvents the chronology, and one might think that it is to her credit that the spire was restored to its original state. However, she was appointed minister on 6 July 2020 (see news item), the Commission Nationale du Patrimoine et de l’Architecture, which was to have given its opinion on the restoration project, took place on 9 July, and it was on that same day that Emmanuel Macron finally confirmed his support for this choice (see article), which we had known for a while. To claim that by leaving this commission the Élysée advisers would have reproached her for a decision already taken by the president is a way of arranging the story in her own way. In reality, Roselyne Bachelot had just become a minister, and played no role in this affair...

The most embarrassing thing about this book is obviously not that she attacks me. It is sometimes quite amusing, especially when she writes that I run a confidential "webzine" (who still talks like that?) with 4,000 subscribers! This is of course not entirely true, since if you count individual subscribers and those who subscribe via institutions (ministries, libraries, universities), the figure is closer to 10,000. As for the visitors to the site, who can read the beginning of all the articles, and entirely those devoted to our heritage battles (thus those talking about our action), they currently average about 120,000 per month (we are talking about unique visitors)! This is a far cry from the "picrocholine digital magazine" she talks about a little further on! But then again, none of this is a big deal. I’ve criticised her enough to happily put up with these few jabs.

1. Auguste Mourcou (1823-1911)
Saint Joseph’s Chapel of the Collège Saint-Paul (now destroyed)
Photo: Didier Rykner
See the image in its page

More embarrassing on the other hand are her considerations on heritage. And first of all those on the Saint-Joseph chapel in Lille (ill. 1) which I defended tooth and nail against her administration, alas without success as we know (see articles). She is executing it again by denying its architectural interest, under the pretext that the Architect des Bâtiments de France (ABF) had not wished to protect it. In fact, she based herself solely on this opinion to conclude that the chapel was mediocre. For when she writes a little further on that she followed "the argued opinions of heritage specialists", this is obviously false, completely false. Most of the specialists who have studied the chapel or intervened in the debate have, on the contrary, underlined its great interest, notably Étienne Poncelet, architect of historic monuments (see this article). Yes, I repeat, this chapel should have been protected, especially as it was part of an architectural ensemble that is now mutilated. As for its condition being so bad that it would have required "several tens of millions of euros", this is simply not true as we showed in the same article. The Minister also mentions the presence of merula, which was never mentioned at the time, even by those who wanted to demolish the building. And when she goes on to talk about the listed Rameau Palace, which is to be restored, she forgets to mention that it was built by the same architect and that these two buildings had been designed to form a harmonious composition.

2. Demolition in progress of the buildings overlooking the Ariège in Foix
Photo: Sites & Monuments
See the image in its page

At least Roselyne Bachelot remains consistent with her actions as a minister on these issues that lead to the destruction of heritage. This is far from always being the case. For we also learn from this book that in Perpignan it would be better to rehabilitate than to demolish, which the State could impose since it is a remarkable heritage sector, and which she has never done (the RN [2] mayor has since continued the destructive policy of his LR [3] predecessor). Or that she finds the Elan law [4] highly critical. It is a pity that she has never said so loudly and clearly, and that she has not fought to combat its deleterious effects. Notably in Foix, where she did nothing to defend the opinion of the Architect des Bâtiments de France and did nothing to prevent the demolitions (ill. 2) along the Ariège (see the articles). It is strange to see the minister rely on the opinion of an ABF when it comes to demolishing a chapel, but neglect it when it comes to protecting major old buildings in the Ariège. And it is rather easy to write, afterwards, that the Foix case is "an example of barbaric urban planning [...] where the socialist mayor Norbert Meler, against the negative but only consultative opinion of the ABF, decided to destroy buildings of character in order to make a social housing estate". The explanation that she could do nothing about it, precisely because of the Elan law, is obviously not admissible: it was easy to denounce the way in which the mayor used this scurrilous law, by decreeing a state of peril which did not exist, according to the ABF itself. Opposing the misuse of the spirit of a law was her responsibility, and she had the means to do so. On the contrary: her heritage advisor Jean-Baptiste de Froment did not hesitate to call a journalist from a local newspaper to defend the demolition, thus going beyond the role of an advisor, which is to advise the minister, not to communicate or take an open position. The same Jean-Baptiste de Froment also took part in the interview Roselyne Bachelot gave me, which she mentions in her book, always speaking out against the monuments I was talking about and which should have been saved.

In this respect, the minister’s comments on my so-called "rude and insulting attacks" against her "excellent adviser in charge of heritage [5]" and "[herself]" is probably the most detestable part - at least as far as I am concerned - of this book. You only have to reread the articles in which I talked about her and this one to see that, while I am undoubtedly harsh, I am obviously never "gross" or "injurious". It should be remembered that in the latter case, this would be a criminal offence: one cannot insult publicly.
She adds: "Attacking a collaborator is also a rare cowardice: one pretends to spare the person in power and attacks an adviser who is bound to reserve and cannot defend himself because of his function". To use a trivial expression used by Roselyne Bachelot in this book: "C’est un peu fort de café [6]". To accuse me of sparing those in charge, whether they are President of the Republic, Prime Minister, Minister, President of a region or departmental council, mayor or major industrialist, is rather amusing, when I spend my time denouncing their patrimonial errors by name. I also sometimes attack "collaborators", that’s right, when they play an essential role against the causes that La Tribune de l’Art defends, whether it’s a regional curator of historical monuments, a department director of a museum, or a general director of heritage... Because they are civil servants, who theoretically have to work for the general interest, and who are responsible for their actions. We can’t do anything about it if they can’t answer us directly, which is perhaps the only disadvantage of their status, which makes them indestructible and certain to keep their jobs, even if they were to reveal their missions. As for the "advisors", it is obvious that we never question them since they are not decision-makers, except when they intervene in the debate, as Jean-Baptiste de Froment did.

But let’s get back to the main point, which is heritage. As she herself says, a "sympathetic budget increase" is not enough to save it. But that’s all she claims: the increase in the ministry’s heritage budget as part of the recovery plan. And she regrets that we did not congratulate her. I should certainly have done so, but I am now very cautious on this point. Because the reality of a budget increase, as we have seen on several occasions, can only be seen a posteriori, when we look at the credits actually spent. How often do large budget increases result in much smaller increases in real funding? It would also have been surprising if, in the framework of this recovery plan, heritage had been neglected. Finally, although it was important to increase this budget to deal with the consequences of the health crisis, the main thing is to make this increase sustainable, which is far from certain. The budget is therefore certainly a positive point to be credited to Roselyne Bachelot. But the role of a minister, well beyond the budgetary issue, is to fight foot to foot against the wreckers, and the least we can say is that she has not shown much pugnacity in fulfilling this mission. As I have written before, a Minister of Culture is remembered for what he has destroyed, not for what he has saved. And what she has saved, apart from the Caserne Gudin - about which we have spoken at length to pay tribute to her ministry - is very tenuous. If the Gudin barracks were not demolished, the one in Verdun, which was at least as interesting, was indeed destroyed (ill. 3)

3. Destruction in progress of the caserne Miribel in Verdun
Photo: Screen copy of a France 3 report
See the image in its page

And even on the budget, she seems to be content with the usual antiphon that the one devoted to heritage is insufficient, that in the end nothing can be done about it, and that we must therefore get used to the idea that we will not be able to save everything. If there is one thing a Minister of Culture should never say, it is this. How can we hope to protect heritage when the person responsible for its conservation gives up before even trying? Let us repeat once again that solutions to find money exist, and we have proposed at least two. Instead of complaining about La Tribune de l’Art, she should have read it a bit more, even to contradict our idea of using the tourist tax and a percentage on all the bets of the Française des Jeux (see this article). At least she would have shown that she had asked herself the question, and that she had tried to solve it.
As in the meeting she gave me [7], in this book she reiterates her concern for the châteaux, many of which are no longer finding buyers, the burden being too heavy for families to keep them. But what has she done to mobilise the resources of the ministry - we are not talking about a budget here, but about reflection - in order to find solutions to this issue? Nothing, of course. She is also rightly concerned about unprotected village churches, but not to think of solutions: to conclude that they cannot be saved. Fortunately, other politicians, such as Senator Pierre Ouzoulias, author of a report on this religious heritage, rather than lamenting, are trying to come up with ideas to save them. But it is undoubtedly a question, as she dares to write about me, of a "narrow conception of heritage".

Let’s finish with the responsibility of the State. According to this book, the Ministry could do nothing, and the people responsible would be the local elected officials. She even dares to accuse La Tribune de l’Art of sparing them and placing all the responsibility on the poor Ministry of Culture. Here is what she writes (you have to read it to believe it!): "In this respect, the webzine La Tribune de l’art is not the only media outlet to sing the recurrent antiphon of an impotent state faced with the communes, adorned with the halo of angelism"? Spare the mayors, think them "angelical", that’s all us! The remark is so absurd that it is useless to develop it further here. Yes, of course, local elected officials are often the first vandals (not always fortunately, there are some very good mayors) and we don’t mind saying so. But to claim that the Ministry of Culture is helpless against them is a joke. Let’s remind Roselyne Bachelot that the law exists, notably the Heritage Code, and that the State’s role is to ensure that it is respected, and sometimes even to improve it. The ministry has a lot of tools for this. But it needs to have the will and the courage to do so, especially when the ministry is itself the vandal, as in the case of the Claustrier House (see the articles), a case that she is careful not to mention in the book.

Let’s add that we can conclude from this book that the defenders of heritage are the natural enemies of the Minister of Culture. She sees them - it is written in the book - as an "aggressive ecosystem that regularly targets the Minister of Culture, his or her office, the heritage departments, the mayor of Paris, and local elected officials, all of whom are presented as a herd of illiterate and destructive elephants". Apart from the incoherence of his comments - sometimes we denounce, wrongly of course, the local elected officials, sometimes we ignore their responsibilities... - this vision of the bad guys versus the good guys is totally disconnected from reality. In reality, we should all be on the same side, and it is still embarrassing that those who want to defend the heritage are seen as troublemakers by the person who was in charge of its protection, with many means. And when a few sentences later she writes: "It is indeed easy to mobilise for a ruined chapel without worrying about placing oneself in a global perspective of prioritisation of investments. If 3 million euros are allocated to save the chapel [8], it is a cathedral that will not be made safe", she lends her own turpitude to others. Who, if not myself or the associations (including Sites & Monuments), is asking that we think globally about sustainable solutions for heritage issues? And who, if not the Ministry, and in particular Roselyne Bachelot, refuses to resolve the heritage scandals caused precisely by the absence of a global vision?

This one is - I can testify to it, and that’s why I was "all honey" when we met - eminently sympathetic, and very funny. But that is not enough to make a good Minister of Culture.

Roselyne Bachelot, 682 Jours, Plon, 2022, 288 p., €20.90. ISBN: 9782259314657.

Didier Rykner


[1Given the subject matter, I am exceptionally writing this article in the first person, which I don’t usually enjoy.

[2Rassemblement National, French far right party.

[3Les Républicains, French right-wing party.

[4The ELAN law The facilitates destructions in theoretically protected sectors.

[5Let’s remember that he had no training or experience in the field of heritage.

[6It could be translated by: "It takes guts".

[7where she dismissed out of hand the idea of increasing the budget through the tourist tax and the tax on the Française des Jeux

[8She dares to specify: "the chapel in which the president of the safeguarding association made her solemn communion", thus making it seem as if the associations are fighting for their personal interests and not for the heritage common to all


Your comments

In order to be able to discuss articles and read the contributions of other subscribers, you must subscribe to The Art Tribune. The advantages and conditions of this subscription, which will also allow you to support The Art Tribune, are described on the subscription page.

If you are already a subscriber, sign in.